Jimmy T, my partner in the Anti-Crime Unit, and I were cruising on Flatbush Avenue approaching Grand Army Plaza in the northern end of Brooklyn, New York City’s most populated borough.  It was 1 AM and the streets were still crowded with people, all sorts of people.  You name it, that type of person was there.

As usual, we were driving one of the Anti-Crime cars, a de-commissioned patrol car, with 210,000 miles.  To call it unmarked would be unfair to the other, better cars, in the precinct. To call it, non-descript, would be a joke.  We were in plainclothes and looking for a collar.  A gun collar or stick-up robbery, hopefully.

As we approached the plaza, Jimmy noticed two males crossing Flatbush Avenue. One male black and one male white.  They weren’t walking together but were, undoubtedly, a team.  Jimmy realized right away the pair was the stick-up team responsible for a series of robberies in the span of several precincts bordering the area. They were dubbed the “Yinyang” crew.  On at least two of the robberies, they shot, but didn’t kill, their victims.   On another robbery, during a foot pursuit with uniform officers, the crew fired over 15 shots at the pursuing officers.  The cops were not hit, but the shooters got away.

Jimmy and I looked at each other.  I immediately I jumped out of the car on went on foot. Jimmy backed off so our overbearing barely unmarked car wouldn’t alert the robbers.  As they arrived on the other side of Flatbush Avenue, they seemed to be scoping out potential victims.  Staying about a hundred feet to their rear and across the street, they didn’t realize I was following.

Jimmy drove to the other side of the area and was about 200 feet in front of them and down a side street. Not too long after Jimmy and I were in position for our surveillance, I observed the two started follow a male in a business suit down a side street between Jimmy’s location and mine. I alerted Jimmy on the radio and I rushed up to the mouth of the intersection to regain my observation.

By the time I reached the corner, the two robbers already had the male on the ground begging for his life and they were rummaging through his pockets.  I walked closer to the robbery in progress scene to make my presence known to prevent the robbers from shooting their victim.


As they turned toward me and pointed their guns in my direction, I heard a familiar sound behind them.  It was faint dog bark but I knew it wasn’t a bark.  It was Jimmy’s signal to me that he going to move into position so we could form a “V” and take these guys down at gunpoint.  It worked.  They never realized the bark was coming from Jimmy and that it was a covert signal for him and me to reposition ourselves into a funnel in which the robbers were at the end.  It gave us a tactical edge and seriously astounded the robbers into confusion and the realization there was nowhere to run.

Jimmy shouted, “Police, Don’t Move!  Drop the Guns!  We both had cover behind nearby vehicles and the robbers had none. I yelled, Police Don’t Move! Drop the Guns! By now, they were confused about how many cops were confronting them. Also, sirens were getting louder because I called for back-up as soon as I saw the robbery going down. Better than that, they can see the bright lights of approaching patrol cars which caused more confusion and desperation.

With apparently nowhere to go and no way to escape, or shoot it out, they both dropped their guns threw their hands in the air. I shouted, “Hold the dogs! It was our code words for a few things.  It was to frighten the robbers so they would think there were police dogs ready to attack.  It was also code to tell Jimmy I was going to approach slowly, and he would cover me.  After picking up the robber’s guns, I ordered them to get down on the ground and handcuffed them one after the other.

This incident was used as a way to illustrate the use and effectiveness of code words and signals.  Street cops need an edge, always. Any advantage or increase in a tactical edge that a street cop can create can help the ability to be safer and more effective in many situations.  Sometimes, it can be the difference between living and dying.  Using code words and signals should be part of every street cop’s practices, yet it is seldom used by most officers.

While code words are verbal, signals can be verbal or non-verbal.  They are used to communicate an officer’s observations or impending actions. Code words and signals are important because it prevents ‘telegraphing’ an officer’s observations and intentions to a suspect but insures the clear communication between partners and back-up officers. They greatly increase officer safety and coordination while minimizing miscommunication.

Code words work well in situations where signals are inefficient or impractical. A good example of using a code word rather than a signal is evident in a situation where one officer sees a gun under the seat of the motorist and his back-up, or partner, is unaware.  To avoid causing either officer to take their eyes off the suspect, the observing officer can use a predetermined code word or code words, known to both officers. Something like, “Cold” or “It’s cold out” to signify ‘gun’ (sometimes referred to as cold steel) can alert the other officer(s) to the presence of a gun. This won’t alert the suspect to the observations and intentions of the officers.

In such situations where a signal is more efficient, it is important to use a clear signal that the other officer, or officers, will easily realize the meaning.  A signal can be a hand sign, a noise, or distinct action.  It can be something like tapping twice on the fender of a car or even a “bark.” Using a signal, in the form of a hand sign, may be more appropriate when quiet is necessary.

This can be effective in the case of a police response to an in-progress burglary where one officer identifies the point of the break-in but does not want to make a sound and alert the burglar.  A hand sign such as the hands simulating something breaking, like the breaking of an imaginary pencil, is a clear signal of a ‘break-in’ or ‘point of the break’.  In those situations where the officer cannot use his hands, like in the case of holding a suspect at gunpoint, words, sounds or facial expressions will work effectively.

Here is a list of some examples of code words and signals that can be used.  It is, however, highly recommended that you develop your own set of code words and signals so they are unique and confidential to you and your fellow officers.

Reason Code Word Signal
Alcohol / Drunk Driver Thirsty Thumb to mouth with hand closed
Arrest / Handcuff Him Dance  -or-  Shall we Dance? Hand squeezing opposite wrist
Drugs Aspirin -or- I’ve got a headache Simulate a headache; hand to head
Gang member(s) Celebrity  or  Artist Open hand across the chest
Hidden compartment Secret Rubbing your neck several times


 Using code words and signals should be standard operating procedure and used among officers who are steady partners or those officers who work together often. Officers who work in the same agency and back each other up during regular duty performance will benefit.  There are many situations in which the use of code words and signals would greatly increase officer safety, efficiency, and coordination.

While each situation is different, each code word or signal should be different.  However, it will be counterproductive to develop a lengthy list of code words and signals.  Too many will be difficult to remember and cause confusion.  It can result in using the wrong code word or signal in the wrong situation. The best advice I can give to someone seeking to develop code words and signals is for that person to use the KISS method.  Keep It Simple Stupid! But use them!


 “Above all, it’s about going home at the end of the shift … “

We couldn’t agree more.



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